Vierheller: Review Board is difficult process
Kate Froehlich, Executive Editor
March 30, 2010
Filed under News
Sitting in the Admissions Conference Room, Dean of Students Thomas Vierheller watches the retreating figure of a mother, who, while choking back tears, explains the reasons behind her son’s actions. Turning to Vice Principal of Academics Gary Scholl and three faculty members, he stares at his notes, ready to assist in making a recommendation that could forever change the life of a student.
“It is a very, very difficult process for everybody involved. It can be very emotional. There is a level of trust between the student body, parents, [and the] faculty that the Review Board goes about its business very carefully and very seriously,” said Vierheller.
The Review Board is “John Carroll’s version of due process,” according to Scholl, allowing students who acquire three demerits a chance to explain their actions in front of a panel that then makes recommendations about the future of the student to Principal Paul Barker.
“It essentially allows the student to be faced with the charges against them. Their discipline record is presented to them, and they have an opportunity to explain, to make any comments they want to in their defense. Due process involves knowing what you are charged with and having an opportunity for a hearing to respond to the charges,” Scholl said.
Vierheller added, “No student should be dismissed without being heard. It is the student’s opportunity to be heard and a chance for the school to gather as much information as possible.”
There are, said Vierheller, approximately eight to 10 Boards a year, with the “greatest majority” not being expelled.
The Board is made up of Scholl, who serves as chair, Vierheller or Freshmen Dean of Students Sean Ireton, depending on the students’ grade level, and three to five teachers.
The teachers volunteer to preside on the Board each case, allowing for “a good bit of diversity in the membership,” Scholl said. “The teachers are taking their time to help the community and I think they need to be acknowledged and thanked for their services.”
An anonymous teacher, who has served on the Board “numerous times,” volunteers because “it serves as a means to allow both students and parents to state their side of a case. I like the idea that there is an extended process that we go through as oppose to simply removing someone from our institution.”
For those sitting on the Board, the atmosphere is “fairly formal,” Scholl said. “It’s a serious thing because there are very serious matters at hand. [However], we try and make it, even though it’s formal and serious, as comfortable for the student as we possibly can.”
The Board is “not an opportunity for faculty to lecture,” according to Scholl. Instead, “it’s just a fact finding process by questioning.”
To actually face the Board, students must accumulate three demerits. However, “the deans make the judgment about whether or not to give three demerits. We are the only ones that can outright give demerits,” Vierheller said.
After a student acquires three demerits, they clean out their lockers and leave campus until the facing the Board, normally two or three days after their suspension. To, according to Vierheller, “keep the dignity of the students as much as possible,” students clean out their lockers during class time as opposed to mod changes.
The student is given an advocate – whether a teacher, moderator, or coach within the community –to “help the student relax,” Scholl said. The importance of the advocate “varies based on the individual circumstances of each case. But it is helpful to get insights about the students and their circumstances at school or outside of the school to help us get a better understanding.”
Vierheller added, “The advocate isn’t an attorney; they’re just there for support.”
While in front of the Board, members look for the student to express “honesty,” Scholl said. “In fact, that’s the first thing I say to the students when they come in. I explain the procedure and then I always encourage them to speak the truth. Our faculty is [made up of] experienced folks; they’ve been working with people a long time, and deception is detected pretty quickly.”
He added, “Most students conduct themselves in a very mature and honest way. There are exceptions to that, but they are rare. Their demeanor and attitude is one of the things the Review Board takes into consideration.”
Still, the attitude of the student “varies,” according to Guidance Counselor Carrie Siemsen, who has served as an advocate. “Some students are really nervous, some students aren’t nervous. It just kind of all depends on the situation and the students.”
The student is asked to leave, and often, the advocate speaks to give the Board further insight into the students’ personality.
The parents are then asked to come in. Vierheller said, “It’s very difficult on the parents. The Board isn’t there to interrogate. We try to figure out what the student is like outside of John Carroll, like any personal issues we may not know that may mitigate circumstances that caused whatever happened to happened.”
When the student leaves, the Board discusses his or her future on campus. The time “varies” according to Scholl. “On some Review Boards, we spend over an hour, especially on ones that are very complicated and difficult to come to a decision. We give it as much time as is necessary in order to do a good job and to really come to a decision that is just.”
After the deliberations, the Board recommends to the principal to either dismiss the student from school or allow them to return with certain conditions spelled out in a contract.
“The Board is not a decision making body; it is a recommending body to the principal,” Vierheller said. “The principal has the final say. He can make more provisions [in the contract] or take some away. It is solely the principal’s call if the student returns or not. He will make a phone call to the student with the decision that evening.”
Generally, Barker accepts the recommendations of the Board. He said, “The vast majority of the time, I concur with the Review Board’s recommendation and it would take something quite unusual or exceptional for me to not follow their recommendation. Most of the time, the Review Board’s recommendation is 5-0 or 4-1. When it is 3-2 or 2-3 for retain; that’s when it’s tricky. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I have some pondering to do.”
However, he added, “I think it’s accurate to say that I’ve never dismissed a student for involvement with alcohol and I’ve never not dismissed a student for involvement with drugs.”
Although contracts differ depending on circumstances, “Some of the standard things are completion of all detention time without incident, sometimes recommendations for mentoring, sometimes recommendations for weekly guidance appointments. It may be recommended that some type of apology be a part of the return, if there are victims that need to be acknowledged. Sometimes there are written requirements that a student has to reflect on a particular issue or value that’s come to the floor because of their handbook violation that led them to the Review Board,” Vierheller said.
The Board is the only part of the school that “comes close to knowing all of the details” about cases, Vierheller said.
The system reflects the idea, according to Vierheller, that “John Carroll is a different kind of school.” He added, “Possible separation from the community is the biggest deterrent. For those who go through the process, it is not an easy thing and they sure don’t want to have to do it again.”
“If we have 800 students in the building and we have eight a year and many of those are just accumulations of major detentions, that speaks pretty highly of our student body and its behavior. We have students that get in trouble, we deal with it, [and] they don’t want to get to that point. Most students are very involved in the community and don’t have time for this stuff,” Vierheller said.
Kate Froehlich can be reached for comment at email@example.com